Gift-Giving Tips From a Gift-Giving Contrarian

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a gift-giving contrarian. Christmas-time, birthday-time, anniversary-time, it doesn't matter. I don’t buy into the hype, I don’t buy into the guilt, and many times, I just don’t buy.

So just in time for Christmas, I’m here to give you the benefit of my contrarian notions about how not to make yourself nuts over gift giving, and have a sane holiday with no guilt, and no problem.

Don't Shop Where the Shoppers Shop

You know how Black Friday has become mass hysteria disguised as a sale that seems to only get worse every year? This Black Friday, you could have found me tucked away in my living room with a good book, a glass of wine, and some leftovers.

My contrarian rule? Wherever there are gift-buying crowds, run in the opposite direction. If people are flocking to the malls, you flock to the Internet. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, do not for any reason enter a K-mart, Walmart, Target, or Best Buy. That way lies madness. Instead, go to specialty shops for specific items that have nothing to do with Xboxes or Nintendoes.

If you must go to a mall or a toy store, go on a weekday and right before they close.

Gift Guide for Contrarians
Image: Kevin Dooley via Flickr

Not Perfect, Just Good Enough

Remember that contrary to the teachings of every Christmas TV special you’ve seen since you were five years old, you do not have to give the perfect gift. You just have to give a gift that’s good enough.

A few years ago, my girlfriend was planning to drive an hour out of her way, on a busy day before Christmas, to buy a pound of specialty cookies for her boss. I asked her why she had to drive so far when there was a popular cookie shop in town.

“Oh, I can’t stand those,” she said.

“So what?” I said. “They’re not for you.”

“But I couldn’t possibly give those cookies as a gift. They’re terrible.”

You don’t like them,” I said. “But somebody likes them. They don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be good enough.”

It was as if I’d shined a Christmas candle into a dark corner of her mind. Reluctantly, she took my advice, saved herself an hour of driving, and bought the local cookies. A week later, she told me how much her boss had liked them.

“See?” I said. “Somebody likes them.”

Not perfect. Just good enough.

No guilt. No problem.

Enough With Stuff!

Christmas has become an exhausting and embarrassing orgy of stuff. Enough with stuff! Here are some suggestions to help keep the objects to a manageable pile:

  • Limit everyone in the family to one gift. You heard me, one!
  • Kids under 12 get two gifts.
  • The multitude of gifts to your kids from competing grandparents, which you’ll never be able to control, should be rationed over the 12 days of Christmas and beyond. Then the minute their heads are turned, pass some of them on to deserving local charities. I swear, 20 years from now, their spouses, bosses, and friends will thank you for raising such pleasant, unspoiled adults.
  • To friends and relatives with kids, make an IOU to babysit and put it in a pretty card.
  • For parents, buy tickets to that musical they want to see.
  • Do not get what you want people to have. Get what they want. So if you think your Dad should have a cashmere sweater, but he's always wearing a flannel shirt, buy him a flannel shirt. Do not get your parents a dinner for two at Le Cirque if their favorite place in the world is the local Chinese buffet.
  • Don’t be afraid of saying “Merry Christmas AND Happy Birthday” for more expensive gifts. These days especially, none of us is made of money, so there’s no reason not to bundle big gifts. If the receiver doesn’t like that idea, next year get her a joint lump of coal. No guilt. No problem.

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